one over the eight

 

 

I suppose it wasn’t often that the boys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School came across a man public-spirited enough to call their head master a silly ass, and they showed their appreciation in no uncertain manner. Gussie may have been one over the eight, but as far as the majority of those present were concerned he was sitting on top of the world.

P.G. Wodehouse – Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)

 

 

 

MEANING

 

(British, informal): one drink too many

 

 

ORIGIN: UNKNOWN

 

The earliest known occurrence of the phrase, in The Daily Mail (Hull) of Tuesday 13th September 1921, was accompanied by its definition:

I had one over the eight,” said a defendant at Enfield. “In plain English I was properly blind.”

This paragraph appeared in the column titled ‘Mail’ Mustard and Cress, which contained other paragraphs such as:

A pear tree owned by Mr George Mason, Dedham, has borne three crops a year for ten years.—What has the pear trees’ Union to say about it?

The question of the origin of the phrase was raised very early. For example, The Sussex Express and South Eastern Advertiser of Friday 9th June 1922 had the following:

AMUSING CASE IN LEWES COURT

A very amusing case came before the magistrates at the Lewes Police Court on Tuesday when a man named Thomas Richard Colley, of 39, Stonecross-lane, Newhaven, was summoned on a charge of being drunk and incapable.
– P. C. Barrow said he found the defendant lying in the street in a helpless state. He found he was drunk. Defendant said to him “I have had one over the eight; will you look after me and see me all right?” (Laughter.)
– The Mayor (Alderman C. Patrick)—What is the meaning of the term? Has it any special meaning?
– Witness—It is a great saying this last few years.
– The Chairman (Mr. F. B. Whitfeld)—Does the man mean one over eight pints?
– Witness—It is just a saying.
– The Mayor—It does not mean that that is his limit?
– Witness—I do not know. (Laughter.)
– Defendant—I cannot remember anything about it. It seems to be a bit stronger ale here than in London. (Laughter.)
– The Chairman (smiling)—The case is dismissed.

The Evening Telegraph and Post (Dundee) of Thursday 22nd November 1923 proposed the following origin:

Judge Crawford, of Edmonton County Court, who was mystified by the colloquialism, “one over the eight”—which means that a man has had too many drinks—and endeavoured to discover its origin, will be interested to know that Mr Charles Austin, the comedian, claims to be the inventor of the phrase.
Charles Austin put the words into the mouth of Lorna Pounds when they were appearing in “Rockets” at the Palladium, London, last year.

But this explanation is unlikely, since the phrase appeared before 1922; and it still does not explain the use of the number eight.

On Tuesday 20th October 1925, the same Dundee newspaper explained that the origin of the expression

has been debated many times recently, and many theories have been advanced—none of them very convincing and none of them generally accepted.

The traditional explanation of the expression rests solely on the following from Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (1925), by Edward Fraser and John Gibbons:

One over the eight, one drink too many. Slightly intoxicated, the presumption being that an average “moderate” man can safely drink eight glasses of beer.

This origin too is improbable, as the phrase did not appear in military or naval contexts; it is more likely that soldiers and sailors adopted an existing expression. And the reference to eight glasses of beer looks like an a posteriori rationalisation.

It is probable that there is no logical explanation, that the number eight is arbitrary and that the expression is simply a euphemism for having too much to drink, regardless of the actual number of drinks that have been consumed.

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